Molière (Jean-Baptiste Poquelin; 1622–1673)
MOLIèRE (Jean-Baptiste Poquelin; 1622–1673)
MOLIèRE (Jean-Baptiste Poquelin; 1622–1673), French playwright, actor, and troupe director. Born into a successful merchant family, Jean-Baptiste Poquelin received an education from the Jesuits and was studying law when, at the age of twenty-one, he renounced his career to join a troupe of itinerant actors. In 1643 he signed a contract with the actress Madeleine Béjart and other members of her family to establish a troupe which they called the "Illustrious Theater," but they were soon unable to pay their bills and Poquelin, who had assumed the stage name Molière, was jailed for debt in 1645. Once released, he and his troupe departed to tour the provinces. From 1646 to 1658 they staged plays throughout the French countryside, with Molière gradually assuming a role as the troupe's leader, principal actor, and creator of scenarios for the farces that the group performed along with their centerpiece tragedies. In 1653 the prince de Conti, royal governor of Languedoc, engaged the actors as his personal troupe, granting them status and financial stability until Conti's abrupt "conversion" to a life of religious austerity led him to withdraw his patronage. In 1658 the Illustrious Theater returned to Paris and were granted another opportunity to please the more difficult audiences of city and court, where they played first at the Louvrepalace. The king's brother Philip, duke of Orleans, became their sponsor.
Beginning in 1659, Molière focused on performing his own plays, though he professed ambivalence about his new status of published author in the preface to his play Les précieuses ridicules (1660; The affected young ladies). His attention to performance and staging and to the improvisational traditions of the commedia dell'arte remained paramount in his comedies, even as he developed an increasingly sophisticated vision of the comic genre. His greatest achievement as an author was to have invented a "comedy of character" that introduced psychological depth to stock comic situations, in the process drawing on traditions from popular farce and more serious drama. Beginning with L'école des femmes (1662; The school for wives), he wrote fiveact comedies in verse, as well as comédies-ballets combining music, dance, and poetry with the clownish elements of commedia dell'arte. His comic characters often have a single dominant trait or "mask," suggested in many of the titles of his plays, as in L'étourdi (1655, The bungler) and L'avare (1668, The miser). They also portray the social obsessions of Molière's elite audiences, as in his satirical portrait of educated women, Les femmes savantes (1672, The learned ladies) or in his penetrating portrayal of salon society, Le misanthrope (1666).
Having secured the favor of the young King Louis XIV, Molière undertook to fight, from the stage, the attacks on the theater being mounted by radical religious parties of the Catholic reform movement. A first version of his play Tartuffe, portraying a religious hypocrite who deceives his gullible and devout host and attempts to seduce his wife, was staged in 1664. It was immediately banned by the church's censors and attacked in print by Molière's former patron Conti, among others. Molière withdrew the play, but continued to press for its revival, at great personal risk, until a final version, which included a flattering panegyric to the king, was produced under royal protection in 1669. Meanwhile, in 1665, he composed and produced Dom Juan, a disquieting and innovative version of the story of the legendary seducer of women, who in Molière's version is a libertine and an atheist, a modern, educated nobleman who has lost his moral bearings.
Throughout the first decade of the reign of Louis XIV, Molière produced plays commissioned for court spectacles, many of them on short notice, in which he also played the principal role. His L'impromptu de Versailles (1663) gives us an amusing inside look at his own troupe at work attempting to rehearse a play that Molière has not had the time to finish. George Dandin (1668) was first performed at Versailles with ballet and musical intermèdes written by the composer Jean-Baptiste Lully, and Monsieur de Pourceaugnac was commissioned for a court spectacle at the château de Chambord in 1669. Le bourgeois gentilhomme (The would-be gentleman), a comédie-ballet also produced in collaboration with Lully, premiered at Chambord in 1670.
Molière died 17 February 1673, after collapsing during a production of his play Le malade imaginaire (The imaginary invalid), in which he was playing the title role. Denied burial on sacred ground because of his profession, he was finally interred, secretly and at night, in his parish cemetery by special permission of the king. The manner of his death has become part of his legacy; students of the theater regard him as an iconic figure, devoted to the stage, whose work bridges the gap that so often divides the play as text and performance. The chair in which Molière was seated during his last production is preserved in the halls of the Comédie Française, an institution founded by several of the members of his troupe six years after his death, and today the world's oldest theater company.
See also Commedia dell'Arte ; French Literature and Language ; Lully, Jean-Baptiste .
Molière. The Misanthrope, Tartuffe, and Other Plays. Translated by Maya Slater. Oxford and New York, 2001.
——. Oeuvres complètes. Edited by Georges Couton. Paris, 1981.
——. Tartuffe and Other Plays. Translated by Donald M. Frame. New York, 1981.
Calder, Andrew. Molière: The Theory and Practice of Comedy. London, 1993.
Scott, Virginia. Molière: A Theatrical Life. Cambridge, U.K., 2000.
Elizabeth C. Goldsmith
BORN: 1622, Paris, France
DIED: 1673, Paris, France
The School for Husbands (1661)
The Misanthrope (1666)
With such satirical masterpieces as Tartuffe and The Misanthrope, Molière elevated French comedy. He established comic drama as a genre equal to tragedy in its ability to depict human nature, thereby changing both the focus and purpose of comedy. Though condemned by court and church officials during his career, Molière is widely recognized today as one of the most influential playwrights in world literature. His satirical denunciation of hypocrisy, vice, and foolishness, for example, became the inspiration for many of the greatest works of the English Restoration dramatists.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Childhood of Promise in a Prosperous Merchant Family Born Jean-Baptiste Poquelin on January 15, 1622, in Paris, Molière was the eldest child of a prominent family of merchant upholsterers. When Molière was ten years old, his mother died, and his father soon remarried and moved his family to a house located in the cultural and social center of Paris. Molière was sent to the Jesuit College of Clermont, an outstanding school attended by children of prosperous families, before beginning to study law in Orléans. In the meantime, Molière's father had purchased the mostly honorary office of valet and furnisher to the king. In 1637, he obtained hereditary rights to the position for Molière, who took the oath of office. In 1641, Molière became a notary. Given his family background, his education, his profession, and his future court position, Molière's future seemed promising.
The Overwhelming Lure of the Theater When the young Molière met actress Madeleine Béjart, his destiny was forever changed. In 1643, he renounced his court position, abandoned his social status, and risked damnation from the clergy in order to become an actor. Around this time, he started calling himself Molière and, along with Béjart, her brother and sister, and nine other actors, formed a theatrical company, which Molière managed. After renting a theater, the members of the troupe began producing their own plays in early 1644. Their venture was unsuccessful, and their financial condition so dismal, that Molière was twice imprisoned for debt and had to be rescued by his father.
In 1646, Molière, the Béjart siblings, and several other actors set out on a tour of the French provinces. During the next twelve years, Molière learned not only the methods required to be a successful actor, producer, and manager, but also the skills necessary to write farcical sketches before progressing to full-length plays. Throughout his time in the provinces, Molière proved a gifted leader whose energy and self-discipline reflected his commitment to the theater.
Back to Paris On October 24, 1658, Molière and his troupe of actors were prepared to make an impression on Paris with a performance at the Louvre before the young King Louis XIV, his brother “Monsieur” Philippe, and the court. Although the king was uninterested in their major play, a tragedy by Pierre Corneille, he found Molière's farce entertaining. As a result, the troupe was allowed to play at the royal Petit-Bourbon Theater, where they shared performance days with the Italian Comedians. Because they were under the patronage of Philippe, Molière's troupe was called the “troupe de Monsieur,” the Monsieur's troupe. Young King Louis's interest in Molière would prove pivotal to the playwright in the future.
Though based on Italian comedies and farces, Molière's plays were superior in language, plot inventiveness, and character depiction. As the king showed more and more appreciation for Molière's comedies, the Monsieur's troupe began to revive some of the earlier full-length plays Molière had written while in the provinces. In 1659, Molière debuted his first comedy of manners, The Affected Young Ladies, which satirizes the affectations of Parisian society, followed by Sganarelle, a complicated story of love and misunderstanding, which became a favorite of King Louis.
The King's Entertainment Never one to conceal his disdain of hypocrisy—as evidenced by his satirical dramas—Molière made many enemies throughout his career. Fortunately, his genius earned him friends who would defend him, including King Louis himself. Louis was a powerful and imposing force in French history. He reigned for more than seventy years and centralized the government firmly under his control. He famously remarked: “L'état, c'est moi” (“I am the state”). He was known both as the Sun King and Louis the Great. Jealous of both the king's approval and the public's appreciation of the Monsieur's troupe, rival theatrical companies united and, in 1660, succeeded in having Molière's theater demolished without notice, supposedly because it impeded construction on the Louvre. This event prompted King Louis to permit Molière's actors to use the theater of the Palais Royal, where Molière's company remained for the rest of his life. It was there that Molière staged the first of several comic ballets, which was presented as entertainment in the king's honor. From then on, Molière spent a great deal of time writing for various court entertainments, creating works that critics feel do not live up to the dramatist's potential; without the king's favor, Molière would have been in financial trouble in the years to come.
Troubling Times When he was forty, Molière married Armande Béjart, the twenty-year-old sister of Madeleine Béjart. The union proved miserable for Molière; fortunately, he was able to channel his discontent into writing. Without question, Molière's unhappy marriage is reflected in The School for Wives (1662), a play about a middle-aged man who attempts to create a chaste wife by raising her from girlhood in complete innocence. The drama was his greatest commercial success; however, the more successful Molière became, the more fervently his enemies worked to destroy his career.
Quick to find parallels between The School for Wives and the playwright's life, Molière's detractors accused him of incest, called him a cuckold, and proclaimed him a godless man. All were insults Molière and his friends refuted in a 1663 series of essays, poems, and plays. Inevitably, the incessant contempt began to affect Molière's work. In 1664, for example, he was forbidden to perform Tartuffe, the story of a pious hypocrite, because of religious fanatics at court. The play was not approved until 1670, five years after Molière had been forced to withdraw another one of his works, the drama Don Juan.
Darker Days In 1666, Molière's troupe performed The Misanthrope, generally considered his critical masterpiece despite its unenthusiastic reception at the time it appeared on stage. Focusing on an honest, outspoken man in a dishonest society, the play parallels Molière's own difficulties with censorship and social persecution. By this time, Molière's personal problems were mounting: His father's business was in trouble, his marriage had deteriorated, and his health was declining. Still, he continued to produce plays.
Molière faced even more adversity in the last few years of his life. In 1670, his father died in poverty, and, in 1672, a newborn son died. Molière himself was very ill and had to depend on doctors whom, as his plays reveal, he completely distrusted. Meanwhile, Molière's enemies in both court and clergy were at work, ensuring that he would no longer stage entertainments for the king. On February 17, 1673, Molière became ill onstage while playing the title role in The Imaginary Invalid (1673). Molière suffered from tuberculosis, a highly infectious disease—usually resulting in bleeding in the lungs—that was widespread but poorly understood in the playwright's time. Although Molière finished the performance, he died later that night. Even in death, Molière caused controversy: The clergy insisted that he not be buried in consecrated ground. Only when the king intervened was Molière given a quiet burial in Paris.
Works in Literary Context
By establishing a serious, refined basis for comic drama, Molière changed the very essence of French comedy. As a result of his taking the comedy of manners to new heights of sophistication, Molière inspired such playwrights of the English Restoration as William Congreve and William Wycherley. Molière remains a popular figure in literature, as his plays continue to be performed throughout the world, immortalizing not only the playwright himself, but also his most complex characters.
Characterization Most readers agree that Molière's strength as a playwright lies not in his plot development, but in his handling of diverse, insightful characters. By using a simpler language than other writers of tragedy or farce, along with depicting recognizable character types in ordinary situations, Molière attacks the hypocrisy and defects of society. Misanthropes, misers, foolish women, court flatterers—all are familiar character types in Molière's plays. Oftentimes, his plays present a specific character flaw taken to its extreme, as evidenced by Tartuffe's hypocrisy or the obsessive greed of Harpagon in The Miser. In ruthlessly deriding selected characters, Molière in essence scorns an entire social institution, as is the case with the medical profession in The Imaginary Invalid.
Intending to guide his audience to moral and social responsibility, Molière has his characters attempt to deny their flaws. In The Misanthrope, for example, Arsinoé, because she cannot admit her inability to attract men, presents herself as a paragon of piety. Arsinoé, however, is not the only character given to self-delusion in The Misanthrope. The suitors are so consumed by gossip that they never have time—nor the inclination—for self-reflection. Rather than discover why he loves Célimene so deeply, Alceste denies his love for her by pointing out and criticizing her appalling personality traits. More often than not, the characters in The Misanthrope conceal their own faults by criticizing others.
Works in Critical Context
Regarded as more than the greatest writer of the French stage, Molière is extolled by critics of every century as the father of modern comic drama, whose most important innovation as a dramatist was elevating comedy to the seriousness of tragedy. Explaining Molière's significance as a literary figure in France, Margaret Webster, one of the twentieth century's most important women in theater, contributes the following to Approaches to Teaching Molière's Tartuffe and Other Plays: “In his own language he is as towering a figure as [William] Shakespeare is in ours.” For nineteenth-century critic Henri Van Laun, Molière's reach extends beyond French literature in that “he is equal, if not superior, to any other writer of character-comedies on the ancient or modern stage.”
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Molière's famous contemporaries include:
Benedictus de Spinoza (1632–1704): Among the most important philosophers in the seventeenth century, Spinoza was a rationalist who spoke against sensory perception as a way to acquire knowledge.
Blaise Pascal (1632–1662): This French scientist and mathematician is credited with inventing the first digital calculator.
Jean Racine (1639–1699): Racine, a master of French tragedy, followed the neoclassical tragic form—five acts in which the action took place within a single day and was usually restricted to one location.
Pedro Calderón de la Barca (1600–1681): Along with playwright Lope de Vega, Calderón dominated Spain's golden age of theater.
John Bunyan (1628–1688): An English preacher, Bunyan is the author of the famous Christian allegory The Pilgrim's Progress.
Condemned Works Because his comedies were often extremely critical, Molière was frequently the source of controversy in French theater. Most critics agree that rather than seeking to destroy existing social structures, Molière was exposing hypocrisy, artificiality, and vice in French society with the hope that people would control and correct their behaviors. Certainly, because of possible repercussions, it was in Molière's best interests not to offend members of King Louis XIV's court and members of the clergy. Nonetheless, Molière's biting sarcasm provoked the ire of such groups as clergymen and doctors. For instance, critic Harold C. Knutson observes that Love Is the Doctor (1665) is “a particularly biting commentary on doctors and doctoring,” because the doctors “drop the mask and betray their callousness … and contentiousness,” and that the doctors are concerned with rules and formalities instead of the well-being of their patients. Even more incendiary than Love Is the Doctor was Tartuffe, the story of a deceitful, manipulative spiritual adviser. This play resulted in demands not only for censorship, but also for excommunication of anyone who read, attended, or performed the play. Only with the king's intervention—he was a quiet supporter of Molière—did Molière escape being executed for heresy.
Beyond Moralizing While modern scholars, like their predecessors, continue to seek ethical, philosophical, and religious messages in Molière's comedies, critical interest has shifted away from simply evaluating his didactic and moral intentions. Instead, studies focus on the aesthetics of Molière's comic technique. For example, some theater scholars call attention to the staging of Molière's comedies in relation to historical relevance as well as theatrical spectacle. Furthermore, the universality of Molière's characters has long been recognized; however, various critics, including James F. Gaines, emphasize the playwright's use of paradox and ambiguity in his characterizations. Still other contemporary academics approach Molière's drama through his use of language, often finding it to be the essence of his comedy.
The Misanthrope The Misanthrope premiered in 1666, with Molière himself playing one of the main roles. Although audience and critical reception during its initial run was not positive, scholarly analysis over the following centuries has placed the play among the author's most important works. According to scholar Martin Turnell, “The Misanthrope in the seventeenth century was the connoisseur's play and a contemporary described it with felicity as ‘une pièce qui fait rire dans l'âme’ [a piece that makes people laugh in the soul]. Its preeminence lies not in greater depth or profundity, but in a greater variety of tone, a wider social reference, more complex and more delicate shades of feeling. It is one of the most personal of Molière's plays.” W. G. Moore describes it as “a masterpiece, of the same order as the Divine Comedy or Don Quixote.”
Responses to Literature
- Tartuffe and The Misanthrope are plays that employ several devices of farce. What is farce? Identify the elements of farce found in these works and determine how they support the overall plot, characterization, and meaning of each. How do you think physical action can parallel meaning?
- According to Molière, what is a misanthrope? Make a list of evidence from The Misanthrope to support his definition. Next, make a list of characteristics that you believe a misanthrope has, formulate your own definition, and then compare your conception of a misanthrope to that of Molière.
- Molière was a key figure in seventeenth-century French drama. Research other genres of French literature in the seventeenth century, such as poetry, fiction, and nonfiction prose. Who are the key figures in each genre, and what are some of their major works? What general concerns and literary values characterize French literature of this period?
- Compare the court of King Louis XIV to that of Charles I in England. Which had more influence on writers and artists? Why? What artists in the United States today are controlled by political or activist groups? Why do you think such organizations have power over artistic endeavors?
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Molière wrote a series of comic ballets to present as entertainment for King Louis XIV. David Whitton has noted that because the development of this genre is closely linked to royal patronage, the works often offer a glimpse into the social and political situations of the times. Whether written to amuse or to offer social commentary, comic ballets such as the ones listed below have entertained audiences worldwide:
El Güegüense o Macho Ratón (seventeenth century), a drama by an unknown Nicaraguan author. A comedy of high culture now performed as a professional folkloric ballet, the characters in this work reject Spanish control in a mocking and creative way.
The Limpid Stream, Op. 39: A Comedy Ballet in 3 Acts and 4 Scenes (1935), a comic ballet by Dmitri Shostakovich. When ballet dancers from Moscow tour the rural Kuban region, the dancers and farmers discover how much they have in common.
Coppelía (1870), a ballet with music composed by Leo Delibes. Based on E. T. A. Hoffmann's story “The Sandman,” this ballet about a toymaker who falls in love with a doll he creates is widely regarded as dance's greatest romantic comedy.
Coward, David. Molière: The Miser and Other Plays. New York: Penguin Books, 1959.
Gaines, James F., and Michael S. Koppisch, eds. Approaches to Teaching Molière's Tartuffe and Other Plays. New York: Modern Language Association, 1995.
Knutson, Harold C. Molière: An Archetypal Approach. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1976.
Strachey, Lytton. Spectatorial Essays, 1964. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1965.
Van Laun, Henri. History of French Literature. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1892.
The French dramatist Molière (1622-1673) wrote comedies that range from simple farces to sophisticated satires. The master of French comedy, he was both the product and the critic of the French classical period.
As author, director, producer, manager, and actor, Molière lived fully the life of a man of the theater. His adventures can be understood only in this context, for his medium of expression, the theater, was also that which best gives expression to his life. The Paris of his day was alive with theatrical activity. Not only did the public attend his plays, but it also took sides for or against the playwright. His friends and enemies were divided along literary, rather than social, lines. Since he put a little of himself into each character he created, he was not exempt from personal attack when he offended the sensibilities of certain groups. Many of his enemies were powerful members of the court, and only because a number of his friends were also powerful figures was he able to continue writing and presenting his works. His comedies, which often dealt with exaggerated passions, evoked equally passionate responses from his audience. Against such a backdrop, the life of Molière was played out amidst intrigues and financial concerns both on and off the stage.
Molière, born Jean Baptiste Poquelin, was baptized in the church of St-Eustache in Paris on Jan. 15, 1622. His father, a member of the rising bourgeoisie, purchased the post of official furnisher (tapissier ordinaire du Roi) at the court. The young Jean Baptiste grew up in the shadow of the court, the most lively section of Paris. Like many of the great writers of his time, he was educated at the Collège de Clermont, a Jesuit institution. There he received a solid classical background, and he may have known some of the future libertine thinkers, such as Pierre Gassendi and Cyrano de Bergerac. After finishing his secondary education, he studied law briefly and was admitted to the bar in 1641.
Choice of Vocation
At this point Molière was to take over his father's post at the court, but such was not to be the case. Ever since he was a small boy, he had been attracted to the theater. Tradition affords the image of the little boy grasping his grandfather's hand as they both watched the farces and tragedies at the Hôtel de Bourgogne or at the fair at Saint-Germain. When Tiberio Fiorelli, called Scaramouche, came to Paris in 1640, Molière struck up a warm friendship with the Italian actor-mime. He also met at this time a young actress, Madeleine Béjart, with whom he was to be associated until her death in 1672.
In 1643 Molière renounced the hereditary post his father held and chose instead the theater. Since the life of the theater was not considered very respectable, he assumed the name "Molière" in order to spare embarrassment to his family. That same year he signed on with the family of Madeleine Béjart and nine other actors, who formed a troupe known as the Illustre Théâtre. As the most recent of three Parisian companies, Molière and his friends fared very badly. In 1944, ridden by debts and having served two terms in debtors' prison, Molière was forced to abandon this venture. He and the Béjarts joined another company, whose tours were to take them all over France for the next 13 years. In 1650 Molière became the head of the troupe, and he managed to secure the patronage of the Prince of Conti.
Although little factual evidence of his travels and tribulations is available, it is certain that Molière and his itinerant players learned much in the provinces. Molière was a hard worker. The short, stocky man with a large head and melancholy eyes frequently acted, sometimes under a harlequin mask, with the troupe he managed. Rhythm and mime, learned from the Italians, were an important part of their style. When the company was finally called to give a performance before Louis XIV in 1658, it was Molière's farce, Le Docteur amoureux, that most amused the King. The King's brother became patron of the troupe, and Molière returned to the city of his birth.
First "Cause Célèbre"
In December 1662 Molière presented his latest comedy, L'École des femmes, in five acts and in verse, before the King. It was to be his greatest success. The play centers about Arnolphe, a bourgeois who delights in watching the signs of cuckoldry all around him. In order to spare himself the same shameful fate, he chooses for his bride a child whom he then raises in total ignorance. The principal comic device of the plot rests upon the fact that his young rival, ignorant of Arnolphe's identity, tells him exactly how he plans to steal Agnès from under his nose. The play gave rise to a storm of protest, known as the "Quarrel of L'École des femmes." Molière's enemies, jealous of the King's favor toward the playwright, attacked him on grounds of irreligion, vulgarity, plagiarism, and immorality. Rather than answer his enemies directly, Molière chose to vindicate himself by writing a response in the form of a play. His Critique de l'École des femmes, presented in June 1663, dramatized the controversy by introduction and discussion on stage of both the critics and the criticisms. The raison d'être of the play may be summed up in the celebrated formula pronounced by the character Dorante: "Je voudrais bien savoir si la grande règle de toutes les règles n'est pas de plaire, et si une pièce de théâtre qui a attrapé son but n'a pas suivi un bon chemin (Is it not true that the greatest of all rules is to be pleasing, and if a play has attained that end, has it not followed the right road?)."
The "Quarrel" served a purpose much larger than the comedy on which it was centered. In fact, it served to put comedy on an equal footing with tragedy as a legitimate literary form. Until that time it had been considered a humble stepchild of great French classical tragedy, exemplified by many of the works of Pierre Corneille. Molière proved that the passions and vices ridiculed through comedy were just as deeply rooted and universal as those that lent themselves to the creation of tragedy. In an age firmly committed to the superiority of tragedy and the dictates of Aristotle's Poetics, Molière reestablished comedy in a place of honor.
Battle of Tartuffe
In May 1664 Louis XIV organized at Versailles a splendid celebration called Les Plaisirs de l'Île Enchantée. It was here that Molière was invited to perform Tartuffe ou l'Imposteur. The play's title has become synonymous in French with hypocrite and, in particular, a hypocrite in matters of religion. The plot centers on the household of Orgon and its plight after the head of the house has taken in a spiritual adviser who is an impostor and a rogue. Only Orgon and his mother are too blind to see through the mask of piety; the other members of the household are aware of Tartuffe's hypocrisy. The latter group must resort to extraordinary means in order to convince Orgon of his error. In the final version of the play, intervention of the King himself, through an emissary, is necessary to dispose of Tartuffe.
It is not surprising that the play incurred the wrath of the powerful Society of the Holy Sacrament. This order of puritan religious devotees advocated restraints and assumed postures not unlike those of Tartuffe. Although the King harbored no love for the puritans, even he was ineffective in lessening their hold over a segment of the aristocracy. For 5 long years Molière struggled for the right to perform his play—even in amended form—but to no avail. Finally, in 1669, the "Peace of the Church" put an end to the powerful group, and Tartuffe was revived with great success at the Palais Royal.
The interdiction of Tartuffe in 1664 left Molière with a gap in his repertory program. In spite of the fact that Dom Juan was composed hastily and in prose, a growing number of critics regard it as one of his greatest plays. Certainly, the popularity of the Don Juan legend attests to the compelling nature of the protagonist.
Molière did not originate the legend and, in fact, borrowed from a variety of sources. Nevertheless, his Dom Juan bears the stamp of its creator. Like his predecessors, this Dom Juan is struck down by a statue, but only after he has assumed the mask of the hypocrite. As long as he asserts his liberty from outside the social framework, he remains free and invulnerable. His downfall becomes possible, however, when he seeks to subvert society from within. There is a significant difference between the hypocrisy of Tartuffe and that of Dom Juan. Whereas the former is a servile and often vulgar hypocrite, the latter maintains the aloofness and superiority of the aristocrat.
Dom Juan was presented in February 1665 and was favorably received. After Easter, however, the play was mysteriously removed from the boards, and it was not published until after Moilère's death. It remained almost unknown until the 20th century.
Molière first presented Le Misanthrope in June 1666. Although he had been granted the personal patronage of the King, illness, marital problems, and melancholy had left their mark on the playwright. Yet, during this unhappy period, Molière conceived and presented a work that attests to his mastery and genius.
Alceste, the misanthrope of the title, is at war with the aristocratic society of which he is a member. Like many other characters in the dramatic universe of Molière, he seeks to impose his own imperfect vision upon society. He will settle for nothing less than absolutes in a world governed by relative values. Because of this attitude he is basically a comic figure, and all the more so when he asserts in the final scene that only by leaving aristocratic society will he become the perfect aristocrat.
Le Misanthrope pleased a small number of admirers, but it lacked the popular appeal necessary to make it a financial success. L'Avare, presented 2 years later, failed miserably, and Molière faced grave monetary problems. It required a comedy-ballet, Le Bourgeois gentilhomme (1670), to bring in the public once again.
Not the least of Molière's hardships was a hacking cough, which he tried to mask as a comic device. When overcome by a coughing spell onstage, he made it seem voluntary and exaggerated. In his last years, however, his condition worsened greatly. He had little faith in medicine, and one might argue, justifiably—for doctors had been unable to help him. In 1671 he gave Les Fourberies de Scapin, a bright comedy reminiscent of his early farces. But the best commentary on his condition was the biting work that was to be his last: Le Malade imaginaire. During the fourth performance, on Jan. 17, 1673, Molière was seized by convulsions. He died that same night, attended only by two nuns, having been refused the right to see a priest.
Much of the immense Moilère bibliography is in French. Biographies in English which merit particular attention are John L. Palmer, Molière (1930), and Ramon Fernandez, Molière: The Man as Seen through the Plays, translated by Wilson Follett (1958). Other biographies include Henry M. Trollope, The Life of Molière (1905); H. C. Chatfield-Taylor, Molière: A Biography (1906); D. B. Wyndham Lewis, Molière: The Comic Mask (1959); and Mikhail Bulgakov, The Life of Monsieur de Molière (trans. 1970), a lively fictionalized biography.
An important critical study of Molière's works and a forerunner of much recent criticism is Will G. Moore, Molière: A New Criticism (1949). Judd D. Hubert, Molière and the Comedy of Intellect (1962), is a more psychologically oriented study. Lionel Gossman, Men and Masks: A Study of Molière (1963), also reflects modern trends. A more varied critical perspective appears in Jacques Guicharnaud, ed., Molière: A Collection of Critical Essays (1964). Recommended for general historical background are Henry Carrington Lancaster, A History of French Dramatic Literature in the Seventeenth Century (5 vols., 1929-1942), and P. J. Yarrow, The Seventeenth Century, 1600-1715 (1967). □
The French dramatist Molière was the master of French comedy. His plays often attacked hypocrisy (pretending to possess qualities one does not actually have). He also directed, acted, and managed theater groups.
Molière was born Jean Baptiste Poquelin in Paris, France, on January 15, 1622. His father was a successful upholsterer (one who puts soft coverings on chairs) who held the post of official furnisher at the royal court. Molière had been attracted to the theater since childhood. When Tiberio Fiorelli (called Scaramouche), an Italian actor, came to Paris in 1640, Molière struck up a friendship with him. Molière was educated at the Collège de Clermont, a Jesuit (Catholic order devoted to educational work) institution. There he received a solid classical background, and he may have known some future freethinkers, such as the dramatist Cyrano de Bergerac (1619–1655). After finishing his secondary education, Molière studied law briefly and was allowed to practice in 1641.
Chooses career in theater
Molière was expected to take over the post his father held, but in 1643 he decided to devote himself to the theater. He had met a young actress, Madeleine Béjart, with whom he was to be associated until her death in 1672. Since the theater life was not considered very respectable, he assumed the name "Molière" in order to spare embarrassment to his family. He joined a troupe known as the Illustre Théâtre that included Béjart and her family. By 1644, having served two prison terms as a result of the company's debts, Molière joined another company with the Béjarts and toured all over France for the next thirteen years. In 1650 Molière became the head of the troupe, and he managed to secure the patronage (support) of the Prince of Conti.
Although little evidence of Molière's travels is available, it is certain that he and his players learned much while performing in the French provinces. The short, stocky Molière was a hard worker. He frequently acted, sometimes under a clown's mask, with the troupe he managed. When the company was called to give a performance before Louis XIV (1638–1715) in 1658, it was Molière's comedy, Le Docteur amoureux, that most amused the king. The king's brother became patron (supporter) of the troupe, and Molière returned to Paris, the city of his birth.
Success and criticism
In December 1662 Molière presented a comedy, L'École des femmes, before the king. It was to be his greatest success. The play centers around Arnolphe, a middle-class man who chooses a child for his bride, whom he then raises in total ignorance. A young rival, unaware of Arnolphe's identity, tells him exactly how he plans to steal the girl from under his nose. The play caused a huge protest, known as the "Quarrel of L'École des femmes. " Molière's enemies, jealous of the king's favor toward him, attacked him as immoral and claimed he had stolen the story from another writer. Molière chose to answer his enemies in the form of a play. His Critique de l'École des femmes, presented in June 1663, included a discussion on stage of both the critics and the criticisms. The "Quarrel" served to establish comedy as an accepted form of literature.
In May 1664 Molière was invited to perform Tartuffe ou l'Imposteur, an attack on religious hypocrisy, for Louis XIV at Versailles, France. The play angered the Society of the Holy Sacrament, a powerful religious group, and for five long years Molière struggled without success for the right to perform his play. Finally, in 1669, the power of the Society had lessened, and Tartuffe was revived with great success at the Palais Royal. Dom Juan, first presented in February 1665, is considered one of Molière's greatest plays, although it was not published until after his death and remained almost unknown until the twentieth century.
Although Molière enjoyed the personal support of the king, he struggled with illness, marital problems, and depression. Still, during this period he wrote and presented a work that shows his mastery and genius. Le Misanthrope, presented in June 1666, pleased his admirers, but it lacked the popular appeal necessary to make it a success. L'Avare, presented two years later, failed miserably, and Molière faced extreme financial (related to money) problems. A comedy-ballet, Le Bourgeois gentilhomme (1670), helped bring in the public once again.
Molière had also developed a bad cough, which he tried to mask as a comic device. When overcome by a coughing spell onstage, he exaggerated it in an attempt to make the audience laugh. The condition worsened greatly, but Molière had little faith in medicine. In 1671 Les Fourberies de Scapin, a bright comedy similar to his early works, was presented. On February 17, 1673, during the fourth performance of his last work, Le Malade imaginaire, Molière began having seizures. He died that same night, attended only by two nuns, having been refused the right to see a priest.
For More Information
Bermel, Albert. Molière's Theatrical Bounty: A New View of the Plays. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1990.
Scott, Virginia. Molière: A Theatrical Life. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 2000.